Monday, May 31, 2010

Franklin Beautification

I had always wondered how they kept the flowers in these boxes from drying out. Now I know: there is a built-in drip irrigation system. Last weekend I attended Franklin's Beautification Day, where I helped the garden club and other volunteers put flowers into these and other planters in our downtown.

I have to say, I feel a little lost when it comes to standard non-native garden plants, but the garden club members were a lovely bunch. They really bring a needed touch of beauty to our town center, and I didn't get any funny looks from them when I talked about native plants. I had such a good time working with them that I'll be going back for more! Garden club, here I come.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


When my company relocates to a new building, I won't miss the ugly parking lots. But I will miss the birds.

These, I believe, are killdeer, a type of shore bird who can often be seen quite far from shore.

A pair of them are raising three fuzzy offspring right in the grass at the edge of the parking lot.

Mama likes to sit on her brood right on the sidewalk while daddy strolls the asphault and lawn.

The critters are eating all the strawberries again. . .

Where can I buy toddler repellent?

Friday, May 28, 2010

They look so tropical. . .

My friend Sean spotted these at Stony Brook Wildlife Refuge recently.

I remember being told as a child that orchids only grew in the tropics. Nope! There are cold-climate orchids, as well, including orchids that don't grow much farther south than Alaska.

This one is pink lady's slipper, or Cypripedium acaule. I have never seen them in the wild, myself. Hopefully I'll have time to go hunting for them this weekend.

And the requisite disclaimer: do not dig these plants from the wild. They take a very long time to grow, and because they rely on particular fungi in the soil to grow, transplanting them typically kills them. They are rare in the wild in part because well-meaning gardeners who haven't done their homework dig them up and attempt to plant them in their home gardens. Gardeners who have boasted of transplant success make me suspicious: it is possible that their transplanted orchids are merely dying a slow death over several years.

If you absolutely must have lady's slippers in your garden, you can buy propagated native orchids at Garden in the Woods. Be prepared to pay a lot for them - $60 a pop, if I remember correctly. And be sure to talk to someone who works there for planting guidelines, so that you don't waste your money and a perfectly good orchid.

I'm not ready to attempt planting orchids in my bit of woods yet, because I simply don't know enough about them. Contrary to what I may portray here, I kill a lot of plants. In the mean time, I am experimenting with another hard-to-grow native: ramps, Allium tricoccum. It's a guilt-free experiment: I bought a dozen ramps that were being sold as food at Whole Foods. If they die, I'm only out a few bucks, and maybe a gourmet meal or two. But they may live: even though the leaves withered away, four of the ramps are getting ready to flower. I will be sure to do a post on them when the buds open.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Did I say bear?

I meant bears, plural! Another black bear was sighted in the town of Hopedale, just a bit too far away for it to have been the same bear. Also, a mother and two cubs were spotted last week in Blackstone.

People are being advised to take down birdfeeders and make sure "trash is covered", but I find the second suggestion to be laughable. *Do* make noise if you see a bear. They are shy of humans and want to know you are there so that they can avoid you. If you spot a bear, call the police, or the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife at 508-389-6300.

Hell yes! Bears!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sunny Monday

The garden is in full swing now with all but a small area seeded or growing. I'm happy to report that solar cones are doing a great job of helping along the melons and cucumbers. After cooking some of my peas under them I'm happy to see some plants that love the heat doing well. The corn is coming up and the potatoes are filling out. I have literally hundreds of beans planted, but have yet to see any come up. Patience with seeds can be tough sometimes.

Clover Lawn

It figures: just when I'm all excited about mowing the lawn, the clover blooms. It's time to give the clover a vacation from mowing so that it can reseed itself some more.

It isn't necessary to do this, but the clover is still growing in clumps, and some re-seeding should help with that. Plus. . . I like the flowers. And so do the insects. I remember being sad as a child when my parents mowed down the clover blossoms.

This, by the way, is white Dutch clover, Trifolium repens. It isn't native. It is quite possibly invasive, but (and I can't believe I'm saying this) it's already here, just about everywhere, right along with out invasive lawn grasses. It adds nitrogen to the soil, the pollinators love it, and it grows in our barren desert lawnscape without any watering whatsoever.

In the absence of a native plant that makes a decent mowed lawn, I went with a childhood favorite.

One thing I've noticed is that I haven't found a single four-leaf clover in the lawn yet, and I can find a four-leaf clover in a haystack. This makes me wonder if four-leaf clovers are induced by nasty chemicals in the soil. The creepiest clover patch I ever found was in downtown Providence, RI, which has a rich history of such chemical-spewing industries as costume-jewelry-making and cloth-dying. Five petals, six petals, seven petals. . . I stopped counting on the last one and just left. That poor plant gave me a serious case of the willies.

This may possibly be the only organic lawn I've ever hunted four-leafers on.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Natives in my Meadow

I transplanted a few natives into the meadow today, including this, whorled loosestrife, Lysimachia quadrifolia, which has been volunteering in my flowerbeds. These delicate little plants have some substantial underground roots that pop up more delicate plants feet away. . . which makes them ideal for a meadow, and unruly for a flowerbed. Here is what it will look like when those tiny buds open:

The first ones I moved transplanted beautifully. They went from one very dry location into another, and never so much as slumped.

This slumping, furry thing is clammy ground cherry, Physalis heterophylla, and it is one of the most exciting native plants I have found in my yard, because it produces delicious, abundant fruit. You can read more about the fruit and see a picture of last autumn's harvest here.

The ground cherries, like the loosestrife, spread, from what I can tell, through some amazing roots. I once tried transplanting this into a flowerbed, which wasn't a good idea. This plant needs room to roam.

Another annoying weed in other contexts: pokeweed, or Phytolacca americana. You can read more about it here. Last summer I had to evict a few that had grown in inconvenient locations, and, wow, they have monstrous tubers. Think of a carrot, as big around as your wrist, and the length of your lower arm. No wonder they are hated as weeds!

I stuck the poke tubers at various locations in the meadow, but this was the only one that grew back. Perhaps my crude extraction methods were too rough on them.

This was today's big surprise. While mowing, a purple violet caught my eyes - but violet season is over! I just stopped short of mowing it down. It's actually in the iris family: a tiny perennial called blue-eyed grass. Its foliage is so grass-like that if it weren't for the flower, I never would have seen it.

There are several varieties of blue-eyed grass, of which I could guess that this is stout blue-eyed grass, Sisyrinchium angustifolium, but that's a wild guess.

The one in the lawn got moved into the meadow. This other one in the picture I found among the blueberries at the wood's edge. And ironically, blue-eyed grass is one of the plants that I ordered from a nursery just last week.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lawn to Meadow

We have too much lawn. We don't play there. I walk across it on my way to and from the gardened or wild features of the yard that actually interest me. Most of the time I spend on the lawn involves mowing it, or raking off the leaves. What a waste of time. What a waste of space.

After much pondering, I concluded last summer that the front should be kept mowed, for aesthetic reasons, for consideration of the neighbors' tastes, and for Gabe to play on. But the back and the side are largely hidden from the road. I could let them grow in a form of carefully-tended neglect.

I started last year by letting all of the grass get a little shaggy, and then mowing around the edges of where I wanted the meadow patches to be, in order to get a feel for what the yard would look like. There are two such patches, each surrounded by a mowed path, and each one subdivided with another path. The paths are there as a tidy aesthetic frame. They are also there for getting around and across the yard, because a meadow of tall grasses will be a tick hazard. The meadow won't be for walking in; it will be a refuge for plants and animals, and a thing to be gazed into, as are regular flower beds.

The logs and sticks in the photos are my current attempt to add more visible edge to the meadow areas. The grass is getting long enough now that, in most of the yard, it is obvious which areas are path, and which are meadow. However, the side patch extends to the arid swath of ground that is baked dusty each year. Very little grows there. Mowing alone doesn't suffice to establish visible meadow edges, because there is almost nothing there tall enough to mow. Those areas needed some sort of edging so that I could tell where the path stops, and the meadow starts.

For that, I used our leftover firewood, and sticks from the woods. Along with making a decent visible edge, these wooden boundaries have the added benefit of discouraging my son from wandering into potentially ticky areas. And, being just sticks, I'll be able to move them easily in the Autumn when I give the meadow its single, yearly mow.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mowing the Lawn, For Reel

My second article is in today's Franklin Country Gazette! This one is on lawns. If you read the article and found it interesting enough to come here, just for you, I'll be doing a series of blog posts on lawn.

I giggled with glee when Chris surprised me with this. A human-powered mower! Hooray!

Being somewhat neurotic about owning things that I don't use, when folks warned me about how exhausting and miserable these reel mowers are to use, their discouragement kind of stuck. Have I ever mentioned that I own a violin? The stupid thing has haunted me for years, sitting under the bed, unplayed. I keep meaning to sell it, but it has more than just four strings attached to it.

But back to the mower! Thank you Chris! I'm just giddy to get out and do some more mowing. Although I am converting part of our lawn into meadow, a trimmed lawn does have a certain visual appeal that, frankly, my rather free-form style of flower beds need in order to not look like a mess.

But what about all the exhausting miserable work? Pish, I've been using the gas-guzzler *without* its self-propelled feature since we bought it. And why would I do such a silly thing? No, not to save the environment. As laudable a motive as that would be, I can't take credit. I actually push the whole weight of the monster because I hate exercise. Few things make me resent the sacrifice of my precious time more than some some unproductive activity that I don't enjoy. I would so much rather dig ditches than play soccer, or jog, or ride on the rowing torture machine rusting on our porch. The only good thing I could ever say about mowing the lawn was that it was good exercise.

The reel mower takes somewhat less effort for me to push around the yard. The only smell that comes from it is the summery perfume of cut grass. And best of all, now I'll be able to get my mowercise at sunrise without waking my neighbors!

Here is some additional information on reel mowers, including some quirky humor, and a section on their disadvantages.


We have black bears in our area! The Milford Daily News reports that a black bear ate from a bird feeder in the next town over. We live very near the edge of Bellingham, in fact.

And I thought it was cool when a coyote trotted through our yard last December!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mouse at the Gate

After a ton of work, the veggie garden is really starting to take shape: I've got about two-thirds of it planted at this point. If the weather is good this weekend I hope to finish off most of what remains. One of the highlights, however, had to do with moving the boards out of the pile by the gate and into the garden. While doing so I scared a mouse out from its hiding place and up the garden gate.

I have no idea what that little mouse was thinking, but it stayed at the top of the gate for about an hour before I finally gently forced it off and back into hiding. He let me show him off to all sorts of people who were visiting for our garage sale, and he let me take some great pictures.

This one is my favorite. The way the sun made him seem to glow just worked out great.

Just a moment later clouds moved over the sun and made for much more diffuse lighting.

The ears and whiskers were crazy.

Now as a person who has trapped and killed a number of mice in the house it seems quite odd to let this little guy off scott free, but I figure if the hawks are lucky he'll make a nice meal. With the way he stayed out in the open I expect that day is not far away.


This article was originally published in my local paper, the Franklin Country Gazette. That's me there, the "Garden Geek".

New England Gardens are Blooming

New England’s gardens are in bloom. Crocus and forsythia have led the way, followed by daffodils and tulips. Summer will bring lilacs, daylilies, and periwinkle. Because these are the flowers we see blooming across New England’s yards, it is easy to assume they are natives of New England. All of these plants, however, originate in Europe or Asia.

Some common garden flowers are natives of New England: rhododendron, phlox, and black-eyed Susan. Some species of azalea are native, as are some species of dogwood.

Commercial nurseries, and big box stores in particular, traditionally favor exotic plants over natives. This is a relic of decades past, when plants from abroad were a status symbol for the wealthy. The history of the tulip, for example, is particularly interesting. In 1637 the Dutch government had to crack down on a speculative tulip trade so rampant that a single tulip could sell for as much as a house.

Nurseries, for sound business reasons, like to sell plants that are easy to propagate and “pest resistant”. Landscaping companies use these cheap, tough McPlants as a green band-aid in the empty spaces around new buildings. This is why every parking lot in New England is surrounded by burning bush, forsythia, and daylilies.

Because nurseries have focused so heavily on exotics and on a few particularly showy natives, a wide selection of native flowers have gone unrecognized for their garden potential. If you saw it, would you recognize serviceberry, virgin’s bower, trillium, steeplebush, summersweet, or wild senna? Did you know that there are native orchids, called lady’s slipper? Have you ever seen the state flower of Massachusetts, the Mayflower?

If you have seen Mayflower or lady’s slipper, consider yourself lucky. Mayflower has been on the endangered species list since 1925. Lady’s slippers are quite rare, too, because people dig them up from the woods to take home, which usually kills them.

So much of New England has been converted to suburban lots, and so little remains undeveloped, that those plants not used in the garden trade are in rapid decline. And with them, also in decline, are the insect species that require those plants as food and habitat. Most bird species need insects to feed to their young, but the gardens of our yards and strip-malls are chock full of insect-resistant plants sprouting from insecticide-sprayed lawns and cedar-bark mulch hell strips. Forsythia and burning bush and daylilies may be lovely, but to our bird populations, they are deserts of starvation.

Author and entomologist Douglas Tallamy makes exactly this point in his book “Bringing Nature Home”. “We humans have disrupted natural habitats in so many ways and so many places,” he writes, “that the future of our nation’s biodiversity is dim unless we start to share the places in which we live. . . with the plants and animals that evolved there.” He posits that our suburban lots have the potential to be both glorious flower displays and havens for wildlife, if we just go a little out of our way to locate and garden with native plants. His book includes detailed information on native trees, as well as native flowers and grasses, and native butterflies and the plants that host them.

Thankfully, local nurseries are responding to a budding interest in natives among gardeners and landscape professionals. Be sure to let the nursery staff know that you are looking for native plants. Don’t be fooled by packets of “wildflower” seed, because “wild” does not necessarily mean “native”. Read the labels on what you buy, and if in doubt, consult the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Plants Database at , where you can view the native status and range of almost any plant growing in the US.

Even if they have caught the enthusiasm for native plants, local nurseries are still likely to be limited to the most popular picks. But this is where the internet comes to the rescue, with online native plant sources such as Prairie Moon Nursery and Easy Wild Flowers.

Here in Massachusetts we also happen to be near the New England Mecca for native plant lovers: the Garden in the Woods, in North Framingham. Garden in the Woods, part of the New England Wild Flower Society, is a wooded parkland that has been heavily and exclusively gardened with native plants. The scenic trails meander through every possible New England garden setting, from deep shade to desert to meadow to wetland. Garden in the Woods offers classes, consulting services, and extensive information at And, of course, Garden in the Woods has a nursery where many varieties of hard-to-find native plants can be purchased.

This spring, make yours a truly New England garden by planting Massachusetts’s state flower.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Downtown Beautification Day in Franklin

This Saturday from 9 AM to noon volunteers are needed in downtown Franklin to put plants into pots and hell strips. Thanks to Franklin Matters for posting the information!

Monday, May 17, 2010


I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but maybe, just maybe, the hawks will keep the critters from getting all of the strawberries this time.

Also, there is a new danger: now that he has a taste for them, Gabe enthusiastically yanks off the unripe strawberries.

Because It's Monday

. . .and I would rather be gardening.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Double Trouble

Eventually I'll have to get a wide-angle lens instead of being a cheapskate who patches together photos with the Gimp. But I have to admit, it's fun putting together a picture that has my son in it not once, but twice.

Not much is blooming in Gabe's Garden now. So far there were violets and strawberries. And dandelions. And one scrawny serviceberry bloom cluster. Rather disappointing, actually. But things are growing like mad, particularly things in the strawberry family and mint family. There is a strawberry-mint battle raging. The bee balm is the front runner, displaying amazing prowess as a garden thug. These plants aren't going to play nice with one-another. I will have to wield an iron hand to keep the warring plants in check. I am regretting some of my plant choices.

Gabe's garden fails in the most basic respect: Gabe doesn't like it. The wood chips are mean to his bare feet. The circle does not contain his curiosity. His balls and toy trucks roll downhill, toward the garage, so that is where Gabe ends up. The plants don't interest him. I would like to think the ripening strawberries will catch his attention, but the chipmunks ate them all last year. My only consolation is that Mr. Cooper, the hawk, has been spotted almost daily on a snag out back, eating. We have observed a distinct lack of bunnies and chipmunks lately.

There is one winner: Gabe likes the gravel pit. Now if only he would stop tasting the pebbles.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Geeking Out Again!

A couple of weeks before my yard was colonized by mysterious pine-tree-like seedlings, something under the poison sumac caught my eye:

There, on the left. That green thing that looks suspiciously like a pine seedling. Immediately I had thoughts of another thing that looks suspiciously like a tiny pine. Childhood memories came percolating back of a diorama at the Smithsonian featuring a foot-long dragonfly and a bunch of symmetrical plastic plants. . .

This isn't a plant. It is called horsetail fern, or Equisetum arvense, and it is part of an ancient group of fern-like organisms that now primarily exist as the stuff that powers our computers and cars. Once upon a time these organisms grew to monstrous heights, and when they fell over into the swamp, there wasn't yet any creature there ready to digest them. So, there they lay in giant piles until they fossilized.

It's a pretty common plant. . . thing. Horsetail is native across almost all of the continental US, including Alaska, and it appears to be native on other continents as well. But common or not, I'm smitten with it.

(Update) Horsetails are mentioned in a Science Daily article about the diet of large dinosaurs:

"Horsetails were part of the sauropods' diet. For, according to research by the group, they are exceptionally nutritious. However, only a few animals feed off them today. A reason for this is presumably that horsetails are bad for the teeth. They contain a lot of silicate, which acts like sandpaper. But as long as you do not chew them but just pluck them and simply gulp them down, that is no big problem."

Tomato Expedition and Jack Frost

Through to power of the internet I was able to find a gentlemen down in South Orleans, Massachusetts, who had many of the varieties of tomato that I managed to cook in my greenhouse while I was gone for the weekend. Peter runs Woo's Worms and uses the output of the worms to raise plenty of tomatoes, along with other veggies. It was really cool seeing his vermicomposting setup. The tomato plants that I bought from him are looking really good, and I can't wait to get them in the ground.

I did plunk four of the cherry tomato plants into the earth boxes that Jen is letting me borrow for the summer, but the rest are waiting for our current cold snap to pass. It is supposed to freeze tonight so I've got solar appliances and floating row covers over everything. All of the plants in the garden right now are cold hardy, so the row covers should provide just a little extra protection through the night. Well, everything, except the potatoes, which are largely still underground. The few that are above I've placed the solar cones over, which should protect them from the freeze.

If you have any potted plants out now, this would be a great time to bring them in! :)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day to Me!

For Mother's Day, Chris finished the bench for me, which I had studiously avoided doing myself for some months. Thank you Chris! Also, Gabe gave me half a cookie.


Pine trees of some sort are germinating all over the yard.

I love the calligraphic way they wrestle out of their seed pods.

They even sprouted in the wood chips out front.

Alas, once the sun came out, those that sprouted in the wood chips were the first to die, withering in the heat.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mail-Order Mistake

I would like to think that most plant dealers are reasonably ethical with what they do, but this cataloge caught me off guard with its flagrant fubar. Here, they are selling daylilies A. as native plants, which they aren't, and B. as collected from the wild. Native plants generally should not be collected from the wild, as it's too destructive a practice.

My one consolation here is that invasive daylilies are being removed from the wild. Here's hoping the company left the land in better state than how they found it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Irrigation with Black Water

Farmers in Mexico who irrigate with black water fear that a sewage treatment plant will result in no water, or water that is somehow worse for their crops.

Food production is full of such tough choices, but what really doesn't help is when folk take a stance based on their own limited experiences, rather than science, such as the farmer dismissing the dangers of raw sewage used on crops by saying "plants won't absorb poison; they would die."


Here is another topic on which my reading has been single-sided: "superweeds", i.e. plants that have evolved a resistance to herbicides; or, more particularly, a resistance to the herbicide glyphosate.

Some of the more extreme commentary from environmentalists on the subject had me wondering if they understood how evolution works. So a weed might become glyphosate-resistant. How would that be different from a weed that adapts to any other weed-control method, up to and including organic methods of weed control, such as the flooding of rice fields? Farming is not a static thing. The creation of any technology that works well in the fields now is not going to be the best solution forevermore, because farming deals with evolving organisms.

Here's Monsanto's take on the subject. They aptly compare the use of glyphosate on weeds to the use of antibiotics on bacteria. Nobody who understands the antibiotic/bacteria balance thinks that our current available antibiotics will always get the job done. In order to make the longest possible use of antibiotics before the bacteria adapt, we need to use them carefully, neither too much, nor too little - and Monsanto knows that their herbicides must be used with the same care for the same reasons.

(Update) This appears to be one of the articles on superweeds that spawned Monsanto's blog post. I have to say, I'm not impressed with the NYT's reporting on this one. "We're back to where we were 20 years ago" says the farmer who was quoted. Would he prefer to have kept things at the status quo for those twenty years?

Ironically, this article makes the same comparison to antibiotics, only if they are out to paint Monsanto as they bad guy, they have hurt their point by making the comparison.

They really answered their own question in the article: ". . .farmers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it."

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Dawning of the Age of Asparagus

We are required, by law, to eat ourselves sick of asparagus in the next two weeks.

I think the plants are still being lazy. This is a lazy day's growth. When the asparagus really hits its stride, we'll have to eat it to keep it from taking over the world.

Garlic Mustard

This is one invasive plant that, thankfully, isn't in my yard. It's in bloom now out on the cape.